SID SALTER: Disaster fatigue, economy, remapping complicate elections

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – Less than three weeks from the qualifying deadline for candidates for the Mississippi Legislature and less than three months from the August 2 primary elections, the state’s 2011 elections remain in great measure an under the radar affair clouded in the minds of many Mississippi voters by disaster fatigue, a still struggling economy and uncertainty over redistricting that has translated into uncertainty over the entire election process.
While some resolution of the redistricting dispute – at least a temporary resolution – seems eminent from a three-judge federal panel, the other distractions that are keeping Mississippians from focusing their full attention on the 2011 elections will be less easily set aside. And with campaigns increasingly focusing more on targeted television campaign ad buys, social media and email blasts, and less on more traditional means of campaigning, it is likely that this campaign season may well translate into a changing of the guard in terms of how candidates engage in the campaign process from now on.
First and foremost, the predicted run-up to $4 per gallon gasoline has crimped the personal budgets of most Mississippians and has impacted business and government at all levels. The psychological impact of rising energy prices is also felt in the consumption of durable goods – a key factor in getting Mississippi’s economy moving and producing revenue under the existing tax structure.
With the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina only months away and with substantial progress noted, the Gulf Coast is still struggling to overcome what is commonly referred to as “the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.” The lack of affordable, available insurance for many residential and commercial property owners coupled with the 2007 recession-driven collapse of real estate values and the concomitant impact on banking, construction and economic development still plagues the state Gulf Coast region along with the lingering impact of the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill.
In north central and northeast Mississippi, communities are still digging out of the April tornadoes that left numerous communities with massive property damages and several with deaths and injuries from the killer storms. With all due respect to the candidates and the patriotic, civic-minded citizens of Smithville, pardon them if who wins the crowded Republican primary for state treasurer doesn’t occupy much of their time or interest right now.
Now comes the latest distraction in the form of Mississippi Delta flooding that will impact the state from DeSoto County to Wilkinson County in a manner not seen since the Great Flood of 1927 and perhaps, in some area along the river, worse than that cataclysm. Remember, before Katrina, the 1927 flood was the “worst natural disaster in U.S. history.”
As Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government senior researcher Judith Phillips wisely noted in a recent discussion, it will be imperative that the Mississippi Delta receive congressional authorization of the equivalent of the 2005 Gulf Opportunity Zone Act or GO Zone legislation that was signed into law by former President George W. Bush to establish tax incentives and bond provisions to support the rebuilding of local and regional economies in the Gulf states that were devastated by the hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A federal GO Zone-type program for the Mississippi Delta along with the New Market Tax Credits that enhanced the 2005 hurricane relief legislation made more money available for business development in low-income communities.
Until Mississippians can get past a staggering economy, high unemployment, soaring energy prices, disaster fatigue and uncertainty about the future in the face of historic natural disasters, the evolving 2011 campaign will remain primarily the province of those fortunate enough not to be seriously impact by those distractions.
While the social and new media campaigns are in high gear, all candidates struggle with capturing the attention of a recession-weary and disaster-weary electorate. The current crop of statewide candidates would do well to remember that Gov. Haley Barbour’s popularity soared in Mississippi after his success in making the GO Zone legislation a reality to assist in hurricane recovery – and get busy trying to help bring the same kind of relief to 2011 flood victims.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.